A Great Place for Wage Theft

January 23rd, 2014 by Phil Mattera

Restaurant giant Darden, which is being pressured by hedge funds to sell off both its Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains, got some good news recently when it appeared once again on Fortune magazine’s list of the 100 companies that are supposedly the best places to work.

That designation, for a company that has been the subject of numerous allegations of labor abuse, is even more puzzling than the idea that Darden would be better off without the outlets through which it grew into an $8 billion industry powerhouse.

For more than a decade, Darden has been accused by groups such as ROC United of using various means to shortchange its workers on their paychecks, a practice known as wage theft. In 2005 the company agreed to pay $9.5 million to more than 20,000 current and former servers at Red Lobster and Olive Garden outlets in California to settle a lawsuit claiming that the restaurants violated state labor regulations by preventing workers from taking required breaks and by requiring them to purchase and maintain their uniforms.

Three years later, Darden disclosed that it had paid $4 million to settle two class-action lawsuits alleging that it had violated California law in requiring servers and bartenders to make up for cash shortages at the end of their shifts. Also in 2008, Darden reported that it had paid $700,000 to settle another California suit claiming several types of wage and hour violations, including a failure to provide itemized wage statements and timely pay when an employee was terminated.

In 2011, following a U.S. Labor Department investigation that found workers were not being paid for all their hours, Darden agreed to pay $25,000 in back wages to 140 current and former servers at an Olive Garden in Mesquite, Texas.  The company was also fined $30,800. That same year, the company consented to pay $27,000 in back pay and was fined $23,980 in connection with a similar federal investigation at a Red Lobster in Lubbock, Texas.

In the wake of the two Texas cases, suits were brought against Darden in several other states. For example, in early 2012 ROC United filed a class action case on behalf of Darden workers at another of the company’s chain, Capital Grille. For technical reasons, the action was later divided into separate actions in five jurisdictions (all are still pending).

An even larger legal challenge to the company came in September 2012, when a class action suit was filed in federal court in Miami on behalf of all current and former employees (back to 2009) at five of Darden’s chains. The 54 named plaintiffs in the case stated that the company did not pay them for the period between the beginning of their shifts and the time customers began to arrive, thereby forcing them to do prep work off the clock. Darden was also accused of failing to pay time-and-a-half for those working more than 40 hours per week and for improperly applying the lower subminimum wage for tipped workers when they were engaged in non-serving tasks.

The complaint in the case — which described the company as having “a steadfast, single minded focus on minimizing its labor costs” by arranging to have “as many tasks as possible performed by as few employees as possible” — also alleged that two of the named plaintiffs had suffered retaliation from management because of their participation in the case. Some 13,000 current and former Darden servers have joined the suit, which is pending.

The ROC United wage theft actions against Capital Grille also allege that the chain has engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination, including the denial of better-paid server and bartender jobs to non-white workers.

In 2009 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that Darden’s Bahama Breeze chain would pay $1.26 million to settle allegations that managers at its restaurant in Beachwood, Ohio had subjected 37 black workers to repeated overt racial harassment. In addition to the monetary relief, the chain signed a three-year consent decree requiring it to improve its anti-discrimination practices throughout the country.

In September 2013 the EEOC filed suit against Red Lobster, alleging that female workers at its restaurant in Salisbury, Maryland have been subjected to “pervasive sexual harassment.” According to the agency, the harassment was committed by a manager, whose superior was said to have failed to take prompt action on the matter despite complaints from at least one of the affected workers.

Darden has also sought to lower its labor costs by becoming more active in the public policy arena. Until 2007 Darden spent less than $250,000 a year on federal lobbying. Beginning in 2008 that amount jumped to well over $1 million annually.

The company is a prominent participant in the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which promotes policies that enhance the bottom line of chains such as Darden. It has opposed living wage initiatives, worked to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour (where it has remained since 1991) and resisted efforts by labor groups to enact mandatory paid sick days, often by promoting state laws that pre-empt local ordinances on the issue. Darden is reported to have helped write the pre-emption bill in Florida.

All of this somehow escaped the attention of Fortune and the organization, the Great Place to Work Institute, which compiles the list. Or perhaps the Institute doesn’t worry about real working conditions. A 2011 investigative report raised serious questions about its methodology, suggesting it is mostly interested in selling consulting services to the companies it is rating. As a recent Alternet piece notes, the lack of an arm’s-length relationship with those companies is also seen in the fact that Darden CEO Clarence Otis has been a speaker at Institute events.

The designation as a “great place to work” is featured by Darden on its website, but the dubious honor cannot change the company’s dismal labor track record.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Darden, which can be found here.

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